The Priest as Instrument of the Holy Spirit

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of the truth, who is everywhere and fills all things.  Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: Come! Abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.”

I think that, as priests and pastors, if we are to do our job properly, we must have our time alone with God and we must live our own personal tragedy first, and speak to Him from our own heart. Then we will have a word of consolation for everybody we meet. And that is the task of the priest: to console his people, to bring a word of consolation. ‘My priests, my priests, console my people,’ says the Lord through Isaiah the Prophet [Isaiah 40:1 (LXX)]. The task of the priest is to be a comforter of souls. But we cannot give a word of comfort unless we ourselves have been comforted. In the beginning of the second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul says, ‘Blessed is the God of all comfort who comforteth us to be able to comfort those who come to us with the comfort by which we are comforted ourselves.‘ He uses the words ‘comfort’ and ‘consolation’ nine or ten times. And it is not easy to be able to administer such comfort to the people unless we have our time with God.

(Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 376)

As in Heaven, So on Earth

The Lord Jesus taught us: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  (Luke 6:31-36)

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Let’s imagine that we are now in heaven.  We’ve made it to the kingdom of God.  I look around at the other people who are also in God’s Kingdom.  I see some people who were always kind to me back on earth, so I try to figure out how to be kind to them here in heaven.   I see someone who forgave me in my lifetime when I really hurt them, so I walk up to them and talk to them.   Over there I see some people who I never liked in life, and they turn away from me and pretend I’m not there.  That’s OK by me as I don’t really want to deal with them.  I see someone else who betrayed me one time and told all my friends and family about something bad I had done.  They were truthful about what they said, but it embarrassed me and caused other people to condemn me.  When I see that person in heaven, I’m disgusted and decide to find people I like rather than have to be around someone who told everybody about my problems.

What is wrong with this picture of heaven?

It’s just like earth.

So we have to think what did our Lord Jesus teach us about how we are to treat people who have cursed us or despised us or hated us or wronged us or offended us?  We are to treat them as we want to be treated.

Heavenly values are not: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.  They are not about reciprocity.  There is no retaliation in heaven.  No mutual gift exchanges either.  No treating others as they deserve.   Rather, the only principle guiding how people are to treat one another in God’s Kingdom is Love.   Treat others in the same way that you hope God will treat you on Judgement day – with mercy, forgiveness, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness.  Those are heavenly values.

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When Jesus says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?  He is saying, what sort of gift is that?  Is it a gift to pay people back for the good things they do for you?   That’s not a gift, that’s just pay back.  On the other hand, God gives His gifts to us whether we are good or evil.  God gives rain and sunshine to all.  God’s gifts go far beyond what is expected, deserved, earned, because they are gifts of love.  God gives us life, and we are supposed to be pro-life, which also means we should love all who are alive (which we also know is very hard!)

From the Triads of St Paul (19th Century British Document), we do encounter a Christian thinker reflecting on what Jesus commands us to do:  “There are three ways a Christian punishes an enemy: by forgiving him, by not divulging his sin, by doing all the good in his power.”  We punish them by not behaving as they behave, and by not giving them any reason to hate us.  They’ll have that!

Jesus said: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”

This used to be called what?     The Golden Rule

This rule says to treat people as you want to be treated.  If you want people to respect you – what do you need to do?  Respect them.  Don’t try to buy their respect by giving them gifts or praise, that is bribery.  Don’t just do them favors so that they will think well of you.  That’s manipulation.  If you want their respect, respect them, treat them with respect.  Treat everyone as you want to be treated.  Don’t command it of them or demand it from them.  Model it.  Show them how you would like to be treated by how you behave and treat them.

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You want them to serve you?  Then serve them.

Do you want them to love you?  Then love them.

Constantly and at all times by your own behavior, attitude, words and deeds demonstrate to others how you want to be treated.

If you are self centered and selfish, you are telling others that is how you want them to behave as well, so don’t be angry when they reflect back to you how you are behaving.

Finally we remember the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle:  “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”   (2 Corinthians 4:6-8)

Darkness is what we already have, but the Gospel commands are the light which shines out of our darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.  God’s commandments can make even this earth into heaven.

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Loving One’s Enemies

“’But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful‘  (Luke 6:35-36).

These are the great heights to which Christ desires to raise men! This is teaching unheard-of before His coming! This is the glory of man’s dignity, undreamed-of by the greatest sages in history! And this is God’s love for mankind, that dissolves the whole heart of man into one great flood of tears. 

Love your enemies.‘  He does not say: ‘Do not render evil for evil’, for this is a small thing; it is only endurance. Neither does He say: ‘Love those who love you’, for this is passive love; but He says: Love your enemies‘; do not just tolerate them, and do not be passive, but love them. Love is an active virtue.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 194-195)

Pride and Humility

“There are many disciples of Christ who can justly claim that they are indifferent to material possessions. They happily live in simple huts, wear rough woolen clothes, eat frugally, and give away the bulk of their fortunes. These same people can justly claim that they are indifferent to worldly power. They happily work in the most humble capacities, performing menial tasks, with no desire to high rank. But there may still be one earthly attribute to which they cling: reputation. They may wish to be regarded by others as virtuous. They may want to be admired for their charity, their honesty, their integrity, their self-denial.

They may not actually draw people’s attention to these qualities, but they are pleased to know that others respect them. Thus when someone falsely accuses them of some wrongdoing, they react with furious indignation. They protect their reputation with the same ferocity as the rich people protect their gold. Giving up material possessions and worldly power is easy compared with giving up reputation. To be falsely accused and yet to remain spiritually serene is the ultimate test of faith.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 33)

Holy Communion and the Forgiveness of Sins

“It is important to realize how significant this was for Jesus and his contemporaries. For the oriental, table-fellowship was a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood; it meant in a very real sense a sharing of one’s life. Thus, table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was Jesus’ way of proclaiming God’s salvation and assurance of forgiveness, even for those debarred from the cult. This was why his religious contemporaries were scandalized by the freedom of Jesus’ associations (Mark 2.16; Luke 15.2) – the pious could have table-fellowship only with the righteous.

But Jesus’ table-fellowship was marked by openness, not by exclusiveness. That is to say, Jesus’ fellowship meals were invitations to grace, not cultic rituals for an inner group which marked them off from their fellows …”

(James G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 176-177)

The Christianity of Life

At the heart of “mainstream” Syriac tradition the ascetic mode of life renounced not the physical world, but a world gone awry. Celibacy or chastity in marriage; simplicity of food, clothing and possession; care for the poor, sick, and suffering – such were the requisite features of the Christian mode of life from Christianity’s inception. In earliest Syriac literature, the body of the true believer is a body rendered chaste, healed and holy in marriage to its Heavenly Bridegroom by living a Christian life.

In turn, the condition of the believer’s body must be mirrored in the community as a whole body. Caring for others, and especially for the suffering, not only fulfilled the command to love one another, but also forged into existence a community whose life as a healed and consecrated community literally reflected Paradise regained – the image by which Edessa recalled the experience of its conversion to Christianity.

(Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syriac Perspective,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No 2., 1999)

The Blessedness of the Parish

“Let the chief pastor weave together his homilies like flowers,

let the priests make a garland of their ministry,

the deacons of their reading,

strong men of their jubilant shouts, children of their psalms,

chaste women of their songs, chief citizens of their benefactions,

ordinary folk of their manner of life. 

Blessed is He who gave us so many opportunities for good!

Let us summon and invite the saints, 

the martyrs, apostles and prophets, 

whose own blossoms and flowers shine out like themselves – 

such a wealth of roses they have, so fragrant are their lilies:

from the Garden of Delights do they pluck them,

and they bring back fair bunches

to crown our beautiful feast. 

O praise to You form the [saints who are] blessed!

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Poems, p. 177)

Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

A Jonah Moment

 

The Holy Prophet Jonah is perhaps best remembered for trying to flee from the Lord, so that he wouldn’t have to do the Lord’s will since he found it disagreeable that the Ninevites, enemies of Israel,  might be given opportunity by God to repent and be saved.   As we read in the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  ...  (Jonah 1:1-4)

Try as he might to flee from the presence of the Lord, Jonah discovered God is everywhere, one is never away from the presence of the Lord.  And though we have free will to choose in life anything other than God’s will, God is able to outlast us in any game of hide and seek or in any staring contest we might want to engage with God.  It is pretty hard to beat an eternal being in time, though we often are willing to try to play the game.   What is amazing about God in the Jonah story is that God saves Jonah from the belly of the whale while Jonah is trying to flee from God (the belly is certainly a symbol of Sheol – the place of the dead, and the whole story is a resurrection story and a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection, at least as Christ and His followers read Jonah) .  Jonah is not saved because he is trying to do God’s will, but is saved despite his effort to thwart God’s will.  Think about that – Jonah is saved despite clearly rejecting holiness.  Jonah has worked his way to his Sheol, just like Adam did – by disobeying God.  Yet, Jonah is saved from the consequences of his own behavior.  No eternal punishment for the disobedient in this prophecy.

In the writings of the desert fathers, Abba Issac has his own Jonah moment, though in the end he agrees to God’s will a lot more easily than Jonah ever did.  Even saints do not always want to do the will of God, and some do it only grudgingly.  Humans are headstrong and strong willed to their deaths.  So we read in the desert fathers:

Once they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. When he heard, he fled into Egypt, went into a field, and hid amidst the crop. The fathers went after him and, when they got to the same field, sat down to rest a little there, for it was night. They set the ass free to pasture, but the ass went and stood by the elder. When they sought the ass at dawn, they found Abba Isaac too. They were amazed and wanted to bind him but he would not let the. “I am not running away any more,” he said, “for it is the will of God and no matter where I run away to, I will come to it.”   (Isaac of the Cells, Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

No matter where we might run to get away from God, we will find God present there.  That is the mercy of an omnipresent God!

Jonah’s complaint with God is that God is too forgiving and merciful, and Jonah makes it clear that he disapproves of God’s nature:   But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”    (Jonah 4:1-2)   While it is true of God that:  “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever” (Psalms 103:9), that was not true of Jonah who was unforgiving of the Ninevites and hoped they all would be destroyed and perhaps sent to hell for all eternity.  Fortunately for us, God is far more loving, forgiving and merciful than his saints!  We may never find reason to forgive someone or their offense in our lifetime.  On the other hand, since God is not bounded by time, God can afford to be eternally patient with us and forgive us in the world to come.

We  commemorate the Holy Prophet Jonah on September 22.

Fulfilling the Command to Pray

“Every day call this prayer to mind, and repeat it to yourself as often as possible: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who appear before thee today.’ For at every hour and every moment thousands of people depart from this earthly life and their souls appear before God – and how many of them depart in solitude, unknown to anyone, sad and dejected because no one feels sorrow for them or even cares whether they are alive or not! And then, perhaps, from the other end of the earth your prayer for the repose of their souls will rise up to God, although you never knew them nor they you.

How deeply moving it must be for a man’s soul, as he stands in fear and trembling before the Lord, to know at that very instant that there is someone to pray even for him, that there is still a fellow creature left on earth who loves him! And God will look on both of you more favorably if you have had so much pity on him, how much greater will God’s pity be, for God is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And he will forgive him for your sake.”

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p. 45)